Where do sweet chestnuts come from?
The remote unknown Alto Genal valley, quite close to Ronda, is home to the small boutique hotel Los Castaños. The inspiration for the name of the hotel was the sweet chestnut trees that cover the mountain slopes surrounding the village of Cartajima. In Spanish the masculine noun castaño refers to the tree, the feminine noun castaña refers to the fruit.
Sweet chestnuts are the basis of the economy for the villagers of the Alto Genal. They spend all year pruning and grafting, then collecting and selling the fruit. The harvest is celebrated with joy every year at the beginning of November – with generous amounts of anis!
Chestnuts fill the valley; the hiking routes our guests walk go through the trees which provide welcome shade in the warmer months. Cartajima has a thriving cooperative so most people in the valley bring their chestnuts here to sell. The autumn months are a constant procession of small vans bringing sacks of chestnuts which are sorted, bagged and loaded onto bigger trucks to be sent all over. France for marrons glace, UK for Oxford street, USA for stuffing the turkey.
A frequent guest of ours who also has the greenest fingers I have ever come across took a chestnut home to England some four years ago and planted it. We visited some years later and were taken to see the sweet chestnut tree from Cartajima growing in a Gloucestershire garden! It looks very happy in its new surroundings and I think bigger than the local ones after only five years.
The village people of Cartajima enjoy roasting the chestnuts in the autumn and there are several tostones or roasting parties that go on in the narrow alleys of the village. We keep a few for roasting over our fire at Christmas but apart from that I don´t do a lot with them. Except of one infamous occasions!
Chestnuts are considered a superfood by many as they can be used in a variety of savoury and sweet dishes and contain high levels of vitamins C and E, fibre and folate. Plus, unlike most nuts, they are low in fat.
So when next you come to Cartajima, at whatever time of year, you will see the chestnut trees that fill the valley. And if you come in November or December, you can be sure of a toston.